Emotional Health - Cultivating things you enjoy

I have recently begun practicing yoga again. While dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I felt extremely lucky that one of the local yoga studios, Urban Yoga Spa, had such an appreciation and care for us dancers that they offered discounts on their yoga packages. Having such accessibility to study in great classes made it easy to fall in love with this ancient physical, emotional, and spiritual practice. After moving to Philly, I tried a few yoga studios. But none kept. Due to my constant travels and my generally high expectations of classes, it took me nearly two years to find a place that inspired me to return and practice regularly. A month ago, I found Yoga Garden only three blocks from my apartment. This studio is literally steps outside of my home. Beyond that, the classes are physically challenging and emotionally stimulating. For me, the emotional part is just as important as the physical.

The life of a professional dancer comes with an array of challenges. Whether you are in a company or have set out on your own, this career is about 20 percent reward and 80 percent challenge. Of course, the rewards, although less frequent, can be so extremely exciting that they usually outweigh the hardships and disappointments. Nonetheless, we dancers tend to take in the stress of challenges without any great processing beyond feeling upset or let down. Dancers ingest a great deal of bad in hope that with hard work and good timing things will turn around and they will be put on the cover of Pointe Magazine, be promoted to principal, and/or get asked to guest in galas around the world. Unfortunately, this is the trajectory of less than 1% of the professional dance population. The build up and quiet burying of these feelings can really wear on a dancer's emotional state. Without taking steps to ensure fulfillment and happiness beyond the worth placed on a dancer in their current situation, dancers can easily become depressed, jaded, and bitter towards something they are actually quite passionate about.

Living in the "PNB Bubble" - Costume archive photo for Jerome Robbins' The Concert
Being out of what a friend and I called the "PNB bubble," it is easy to look back at my time with this large company and analyze how things worked. We call it a bubble because the outside world mostly ceases to exist when you work 40 weeks a year with a handful of people in a wildly competitive atmosphere. It can be easy to lose sight of how incredibly talented each individual dancer is, how far everybody in the company has come since childhood, how much everybody gave up to refine their art, and much more. Each person's value is based upon what they are dancing at that moment and where they are ranked in the literal and social hierarchy of the company. Due to this "bubble" effect, people's self-worth can practically disappear and their passion can disintegrate.

In the freelance world, things can work in a similar fashion to that of a "bubble." But for the most part, it is completely different. Because freelancers don't often work within the same community from job to job, their emotional state can be greatly affected by whether they are working or not, the quality of their dance work, and what they are doing to make ends meet beyond rehearsals and performances. Sometimes, dancers will take on work that they feel is sub-par or uninspiring just to get a paycheck. At other times, dancers will take on multiple jobs, from waiting tables to office work, in order to make ends meet. If a dancer doesn't have current rewards from their dance jobs, it can make much of what one is doing, inside and outside of dance, feel wasteful and demoralizing since it isn't helping push the artist to the next level.

On tour at the Joyce Theater
Last summer, I wasn't planning on freelancing and my situation caused me to miss the general cut-off to look for summer dance and teaching opportunities. I found myself dancing work that I may have taken before I entered my professional finishing programs and teaching whatever, wherever. I even sought out jobs that had nothing to do with dance. At the age of 28, I was doing everything that I had feared I would do before I landed a job with Houston Ballet a decade earlier. My self-worth went through the floor and I found myself floundering emotionally. An acquaintance I had met at a party after I premiered with PNB at the Joyce Theater had noticed that my updates on Facebook had begun to take a turn from cheerful to withdrawn. Lynne Goldberg (her site will be available on 6/22) is a life/career coach that has a passion for dance artists. She reached out and offered me a one-on-one session to see what was going on in my head. A great piece of advice that she gave me was to make four lists; things I'm good at, things I need, things I enjoy, and things I don't enjoy. After looking at these lists, Lynne instructed me to look at the things I'm good at, enjoy, and need, and try to cultivate more of those things into my life. She also suggested I look at the things I don't enjoy and try to take those things out of my life, as they will be the least fulfilling and probably make me unhappy. Although there is no easy fix to things, I try to take this advice in everything that I do. One thing I learned was that even if I may be good at something or it may gain me great financial reward, if I don't enjoy it I will probably not be happy.

Going back to the discussion of my yoga practice, I took a challenging class this evening with the studio owner, Mark Nelson. One quality that determines the difference between a good yoga teacher and a great one is their ability to inspire emotional well-being while also providing a well-structured practice. At the end of each class, Mark offers a quote or statement to make his yogis think and grow as human beings. Today, we were gifted this little gem at the culmination of our practice."Take what you love and take what you need. And do it." That statement is a short way of stating the exercise that Lynne had given me nearly a year prior. This perfect advice seems to keep thrusting itself into the forefront of my awareness. For dancers, this seems so appropriate because at one point in our training, we did exactly that and it made us happy. It can be easy to forget. Once we become professionals, we have the added stress of achievement, survival, and expectation (personal and social). There is an emotional transition of attitude once dance goes from hobby to job. If a dancer finds that work is becoming overly stressful or unfulfilling, it is important to find things that crossover on both the "things I enjoy" and "things I'm good at" lists and start to cultivate those interests. I have seen more dancers quit/retire far too early due to what I call "emotional injuries." Emotional survival is actually the key to having a long and successful dance career. Namaste!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic
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